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Zoning Lawsuit Not Getting Any 'Younger'

By Robyn Hagan Cain | Last updated on

Abdalla Nimer and his wife, Cathy Fobes, own land where they operate their meat snack business. (Think beef jerky.) They began constructing buildings on their land because they wanted to expand the business to include butchering. Their land, however, was zoned for residential use and the Nimers didn’t get zoning certificates before starting construction.

The Litchfield Township Board of Trustees sued the Nimers in the Medina County Court of Common Pleas seeking injunctive relief. The county court enjoined the Nimers from putting the buildings to any other use — aside from keeping and feeding animals — until they could get the necessary zoning certificates.

That lawsuit — and the subsequent litigation — gives us a chance to discuss everyone’s procedural abstention precedent: Younger v. Harris.

While appealing the state court decision, the Nimans sued Litchfield Township in federal district court, alleging that the Township had violated their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment. They requested compensatory and punitive damages.

The district court applied the Younger doctrine to abstain from the case, which it dismissed without prejudice.

Sixth Circuit precedent says a district court may abstain under the Younger doctrine if there are state proceedings that are (1) currently pending; (2) involve an important state interest; and (3) will provide the federal plaintiff with an adequate opportunity to raise his or her constitutional claims. Here, the facts of the case didn't satisfy the third condition for Younger abstention.

The Nimers concede that they raised constitutional defenses in the Court of Common Pleas, but they claim that the court "ignored" the constitutional issues because it did not address them in its order granting Litchfield's injunction. The Nimers concluded that they had no "meaningful opportunity" -- nor an "adequate opportunity" -- to raise these issues in the state court. The Sixth Circuit disagreed, finding that the Nimers failed to carry their burden in showing that state procedural law barred them from presenting their constitutional claims since they did present constitutional claims.

Because the Nimers sought legal relief, instead of equitable or discretionary relief, Quackenbush prevented the district court from exercising its discretion and deciding to dismiss their case. Therefore, the district court erred when it chose to exercise its discretion and decided to dismiss the Nimers' claim without prejudice.

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals remanded the case, instructing the district court to stay the proceedings.

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